Watzlawick’s Interactional Theory:
University of Colorado at Boulder
Communication theory is a diverse collection of paradigms, not one of which is all encompassing, but all of which are useful for analyzing a situation, explaining why communicative events occur, framing problems as communication problems, and highlighting certain aspects that may aid in coming to a solution for such problems. This paper will describe and explain Watzlawick’s Interactional Theory of communication and apply it to a real life situation, framing the situation as a communication problem and exploring how the theory can help explain and correct the problem. Finally, the paper will examine the deficiencies of the theory by looking at the aspects of the situation that are highlighted by alternative theories which could also prove useful in analyzing what is happening and what could be a possible solution to the problem.
Watzlawick’s Interactional Theory Described
Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson’s (1967) Interactional Theory views relationships as "patterns of interaction" (p. 2) with each participant as a cybernetic system trying to control their environment while interacting with other systems trying to control their environments as well, thereby creating a complex system. Focusing on these patterns in relationships allows one to see relationships as a cybernetic system. Five axioms describe how these systems function.
The first axiom serves to help describe how these complex systems work by showing that one cannot not communicate and therefore everything one does is a message: "Activity or inactivity, words or silence all have message value: they influence others and these others, in turn, cannot not respond to these communications and are thus themselves communicating" (Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson, 1967, p. 1). This is true only however if the parties are "in the presence of another" (Watzlawick & Beavin, 1967, p. 4). This can cause problems in the relationship system though. For example, if one doesn’t want to communicate and inadvertently communicates this fact it may anger the other party.
The second axiom, states that there are both "content and relationship levels of communication" (p. 1). Content refers to the actual subject matter of what is being discussed. The relationship level of a communicative act has to do with how the two communicators view one another and how they convey it. As Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson (1967) put it, "All such relationship statements are about one or several of the following assertions: ‘This is how I see myself…this is how I see you…this is how I see you seeing me…’" and therefore determines "how this communication is to be taken" (pg. 3). Watzlawick and Beavin (1967) describe the relationship level as "information about this [content level] information" (p. 5).
The third axiom is concerned with how participants in the system punctuate their communicative sequences. In a communicative event "every item in the sequence is simultaneously stimulus, response, and reinforcement" (Bateson & Jackson qtd. in Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson, 1967, p. 4). Therefore, one can interpret an act as being a response, while the other can interpret it as being a stimulus creating conflicting punctuations, and "no one participant’s behavior can be said to cause the other’s" (p. 7).
The fourth axiom is that communication can be both digital and analogical. The digital code is what the person says, what the words actually mean, while the analogical code has to do with how something is said or the nonverbal cues that go along with it. This means that someone can convey two opposing messages at once, which may cause problems.
Finally, the fifth axiom is concerned with the communication being either symmetrical or complimentary. This simply means that either the participants in the system are on equal ground with regards to power relations, or one of them is over the other. Conflict can arise when either wants the status quo to change.
Secondly, Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson (1967) theorized how communicative unwanted patterns are particularly hard to break. The axioms showing how interaction occurs also show how it could make the system resistant to change.
Problems of Disclosure and Lack Thereof and with Sarcasm
The problematic situation to be analyzed concerns a group of people, all members of a club, who often spend time together both in a club meeting context and a more informal context of just talking at a coffee shop or playing games at someone’s house. The problem is two-pronged. First, some of the group members have become disgruntled with the way that some of the other members aren’t more open and willing to engage in disclosure as much as they themselves are which makes them feel like they put themselves out on a limb all the time but without reciprocal behavior from the other members. Secondly, other members are upset with the amount of sarcasm that is prevalent in the group and say that they have tried to stop it but without much success. Sarcasm in this case can include remarks made "just in fun" that may be offensive such jabbing and teasing remarks which aren’t intended to be taken seriously but sometimes are anyway, especially after repeated exposure to them.
Application of Watzlawick’s Interactional Theory to the Problem
Firstly, the Interactional view, being in the cybernetic discipline of communication theories, highlights the fact that the group is stuck in unwanted relational patterns. Some people disclose relatively private information while others do not. This particular pattern may be further clarified by looking at how axiom three applies. The participants’ frustration may have to do with different ways of punctuating the relationship. Those who disclose in an effort to draw those who don’t into discussion during meetings may see their actions of making themselves vulnerable as a stimulus and the continued lack of disclosure on the part of the other members as a response to this attempt, and, finally, they try harder to make themselves vulnerable in order to increase the levels of disclosure. The other participants ("non-disclosers") may see their own silence as a stimulus indicating a desire to remain introverted, the other participants’ actions as a response to the silence in order to fill it and keep discussion going, and their continued silence to be a reinforcement of their desire to remain reserved.
If we apply the concept of axiom one, that one cannot not communicate, to this situation, we see that perhaps the underlying reason that those who stay quite do so not because they believe this action to be a stimulus, but rather they may believe that they are not communicating at all in their silence. Therefore, they are unaware of the fact that they are sending a message of not wanting to participate in discussion involving disclosure, and it is this message that is exasperating the people who are making themselves vulnerable in an effort to get the very opposite response.
Axiom two shows us that perhaps while the non-disclosure group is getting the content level message being put forth by those disclosing, they are missing the relational level message altogether. They may be getting the information about what may be going on or has gone on in the person’s life who’s disclosing but they are missing the "information about this [content level] information" (Watzlawick & Beavin, 1967, p. 5) which in this case is saying, "You’re not disclosing enough, and I’m telling you this in hopes that you’ll reciprocate by opening up more."
But disclosure is only part of the issue. Sarcasm is also a communication problem in the group, but it’s not on its own either. Sarcasm is a perfect example of axiom four which concerns the digital and analogical meaning in a message. Sarcasm almost always consists of conflicting analogical and digital meanings. For example, a group member may say something that is digitally degrading to another member, but they do so in a tone that indicates that the insult was meant just in fun.
Whether or not an act of sarcasm involving a "degrading" remark towards another is offensive to the recipient is also dependant on the factors highlighted by axiom two. Though the content level meaning maybe offensive, the relationship level meaning may not be if it is indicated that it is to be taken a certain way. If the speaker and recipient of the remark have an understanding of how it is to be taken then there is no harm, at least from this perspective. However, if the relationship level meaning is either missed by the recipient or it is perceived as indicating that the comment wasn’t just all in fun but rather has at least some truth to it then it can be offensive.
Though it’s not clear that it is for sure happening in this particular situation being analyzed, sarcasm may also be used in the group to negotiate power relationships as emphasized by axiom five. Externally playful insults may be used to boost oneself in power relationships or tear down the other and make them lower, in order to reverse a complimentary relationship or to change a symmetrical relationship to a complimentary one or vice-versa depending on original status.
The solutions offered by Watzlawick’s theory would include attempting to change the relationship system in order to break the undesirable patterns that have been described. This may begin simply with people realizing the disparity in the way either of them punctuates the relationship. Or it would help for one participant to realize that while the offensive content in a sarcastic remark may be negated by the relationship level meaning that individual shares with one group member, this relationship level meaning may not be shared with all the other group members as well. If this is realized then the individual making the remark can act more wisely in deciding to whom a sarcastic remark is made by seeing the repercussions that remark will have on the recipient.
Criticism of Watzlawick Utilizing Alternative Theories
While Watzlawick’s theory has much valuable insight into the matter, it also has its deficiencies. Wiener’s theory, in the same discipline, sees a cybernetic system as constantly interacting with its environment via feedback. This feedback can be negative or positive. Negative feedback is that which resists or counteracts change, while positive feedback amplifies change.
We can describe the sarcasm in the group as negative feedback. Where the baseline is discomfort with disclosure and deviation from the baseline is attempting disclosure, then when someone makes a sarcastic remark that offends another person, that person will likely feel even less comfortable in disclosure of personal information to the group for fear of ridicule. Whether this fear is based in reality or not is besides the issue because the person’s behavior is now being restricted. The sarcasm acting negative feedback is driving the participation levels of disclosure down toward the baseline of nonparticipation.
Ignorance of having offended someone through use of sarcasm can act as a positive feedback in a harmful way. If the baseline being examined is the use of sarcasm, then every time a group member offends another by sarcasm but is ignorant to the fact there is then less and less reason not to use sarcasm and more instances in which they have done so but think that no one was offended. People tend to feed off of each other’s sarcasm which also acts as a positive feedback loop. This can often end in the breakdown of a system or climax of some sort or another, and this group was no exception. There was a climax in which issues were raised, but this incident will be examined more closely by applying Deetz’ theory later in the paper.
Peirce’s theory frames the problem still differently. The members have a mediatory interest (it means something to them) in the symbols that make up a sarcastic remark. The problem arises when two members think that they have the same shared intersubjective meaning for the remark. The member that made the remark assumes that they are simply transmitting a meaning indicating that the remark is "just in fun" to the person they assume is the "recipient" of the message. However, the meaning isn’t being simply transferred. It’s being created between the two of them, and the subjective meaning one comes up with doesn’t always match the meaning as subjectively being seen by another. This is why one may think the remark offensive and the other not. This idea can be broadened further to look at all the members at once rather than just a pair of them. A third party may hear a remark between two other people who share an intersubjective meaning for the symbols being used, but the third party may not. Therefore, there are latent effects as well.
Buber’s theory within the discipline of phenomenology draws on a key concept that none of the other theories thus far have been able to put their finger on as of yet. Instead of viewing the other as a stimulus or response or some other cold impersonal concept, Buber’s theory suggests coming to genuine dialogue through experiencing an other as another being having experiences. Possibly if those in the group who are disgruntled with the lack of disclosure see the non-disclosers as other experiential beings, then maybe they can connect in a deeper way by that means as opposed to the more cybernetic based idea of information sharing.
Possibly the most useful theory for discovering what it is that should actually be done to change the situation is offered by Stan Deetz. Deetz’ theory draws upon the phenomenological, cybernetic, and critical disciplines of communication theory. The critical discipline is particularly interested in changing society more so than merely explaining it. First, though, to explain what is occurring in the situation Deetz considers the fact that there is an idea in our culture that came about from the enlightenment period focusing on, among other things, identity. People miss the fact, Deetz’ theory illustrates, that identity is produced and reproduced in interaction with other people. In the situation being analyzed, this came out in a communicative event one week when, though maybe not explicitly, people realized the fact that they were focused on maintaining their own identity at the expense of hurting others with what they say.
Conversational blockage was occurring in the said group, as evidenced (not proven, but evidenced) by the fact that people were staying uncomfortable with disclosure in the group. All of Deetz’ ways in which he describes blockage can occur may have been happening, almost exclusively implicitly, but happening nonetheless. Disqualification, when some members are purposely or accidentally excluded from the conversation by others (usually those in power) communicatively barring them from doing so, was most likely occurring with some of the more open and sarcastic people further excluding the more closed off people from participation without even realizing it. Naturalization may have been occurring with people justifying their sarcasm, implicitly (or possible explicitly, though I personally never heard it) saying "Oh, it’s not a big deal, it’s just how we talk," indicating therefore that there’s no way to stop it either. Neutralization and meaning denial are closely knit in this situation as one can easily neutralize sarcasm by saying that it was only "just in fun" and that that’s all there is to it. The fact of the matter is that they weren’t serious in their teasing or jabbing remarks, so therefore it’s a closed matter. Similarly, one can engage in meaning denial claiming that, although they said one thing, they meant something else. Topical avoidance occurred in the group. Usually, all refrained from engaging in metacommunication to expose the damage that was being done, but when someone did attempt they were shot down, often with one of the previously mentioned excuses. Finally, subjectification of the experiences of others was occurring as well, this time explicitly as well as implicitly. When one member would express concern over sarcasm other members would dismiss it by saying that it might be one thing to one person but something completely different to another person.
Deetz’ theory provides three clear means of breaking down communication blockage, two of which were directly utilized at the group meeting during which the issues of sarcasm and disclosure climaxed, to try to free the group from its own internal repression. One member started out the meeting by unexpectedly announcing that they had something to say to the group. The member then proceeded to give a monologue expressing how they felt like the group wasn’t being as effective in what it was doing as it could be if there was reciprocal amounts of personal disclosure within the group serving to unite the group more closely. This was a prime example of Deetz’ first method of breaking down conversational blockage, rhetoric. It helped by getting the issues on the table, having spoken about something that previously was somewhat of a taboo topic in the group. It also served to lead into the next solution, metacommunication. The rest of that group meeting was spent discussing how we talked. By doing so it helped to breakdown more barriers of taboo topics, didn’t allow in particular for subjectification of experience as all members’ opinions were treated with respect and there was openness to hearing the opinions and viewpoints of others rather than people just trying to get their point across. This is exactly what Deetz sees as the optimal speech situation, all members focusing on the subject matter rather than personal agenda.
Many theories of communication can be applied to the same communication problem. Some theories give better insight than others in how to deal with certain communicative issues, but all have their own strengths and weaknesses. For this reason it would seem to be of most benefit to utilize an assortment of theories to analyze and produce solutions for any specific problematic communication situation.
Watzlawick, P. & Beavin, J. (1967). Some formal aspects of communication. ABI/INFORM Global 10(8), 4-8.
Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J. H., & Jackson, D. D. (1967). Some tentative axioms of communication. In Pragmatics of human communication: A study of interactional patterns, pathologies, and paradoxes (pp. 48-71). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.